Moviegoers looking for some unusual genre-mixing might find plenty to love next year in King Lee, a low-budget independent film currently being shot in Syracuse. The plot is loosely inspired by the late Syracuse Mayor Lee Alexander, whose political career ended behind bars after he was charged with accepting $1.5 million in kickbacks.
But according to director Jonathan Case, 39, this is not your average biopic. “The only movie that I would liken it to in terms of tone is Dr. Strangelove,” said Case. “It’s a black comedy about the way human beings react to a pretty ridiculous situation.”
Everybody working on the film seems to have a different take on how to describe it. Tim Ferlito, King Lee’s co-writer and co-producer, paints it as a modern Jekyll-and-Hyde tale with elements of several genres. It’s not historically accurate, for starters; although certain elements are inspired by actual events, only the protagonist is based on a real person, and they never use his full name.
“It’s about a person who was very corrupt, but also did so much to get people enthusiastic and believing in the city’s potential,” said Ferlito. “We’re taking this overblown and charismatic man and playing with the duality of his nature.”
Lee Alexander became mayor of Syracuse in 1970, the first Democrat to be elected in decades. Even now, he is considered by some to be the Salt City’s most successful mayor, having kept Syracuse economically solvent during a recession and attracting millions of dollars in state and federal aid for the revitalization of the city. He left office in 1985, but in 1987 he was indicted on charges of racketeering, tax evasion and conspiracy to obstruct a federal investigation. He spent nearly six years in prison before his release. Alexander died in 1996.
The film takes place during the 1970s, before Alexander’s fall from grace. “We took a hard look at movies that were out when he was in charge of things,” said Ferlito. “It’s really inspired by cheap action and blaxploitation films of the period.”
Case and Ferlito met in 1997 while working at WSTM-Channel 3. Since then, they’ve collaborated on several film projects together, including Ivory Bastards Against Extinction, which won the Best Short Film prize at the B-Movie Film Festival in 2008.
King Lee was born out of a desire to produce a film in Syracuse about the city itself. Case recalls Lee Alexander as a monumental figure in the city’s history. As a child, he even had an Alexander campaign poster hanging in his room that proclaimed “Lee-dership: We’d Be Crazy To Give It Up.”
“I used to think of him as a heroic figure because he made you proud of your city,” said Case. “He had a vision for it and he made you believe that we could be better than we were.”
It might be an understatement to call the film “over the top.” According to Ferlito, the opening scene finds the titular mayor using martial arts to beat up some people that are “disrespecting the city.”
Ferlito said, “We wanted to establish the tone from the very beginning. He’s like a kung-fu rock god of municipal government, this take-no-crap kind of guy that will smack you around if you screw with his city.”
With such an outrageous central character, it was important to cast the right actor in the lead role. A friend’s recommendation led Case and Ferlito to Nathan Faudree, a local actor who has performed in several local theater productions. He was perfect: Not only does he look like Lee Alexander, but he has plenty of experience acting in low-budget horror and genre films.
“As soon as I read the script, I was in,” said Faudree. “It’s kind of silly on the surface, but there’s a lot of commentary on leadership and politics beneath that. By the end I was very moved by the story and the characters.”
Unfortunately, due to scheduling conflicts, Case and Ferlito realized they’d be unable to raise their preferred budget before beginning production. So they took a huge risk: They started filming in August, around the same time they launched a Kickstarter campaign online to raise money for the film. All of their expenses are currently being paid out-of-pocket, and according to Kickstarter’s rules, if they don’t raise all of their $10,000 goal they won’t receive any of it. It’s all or nothing.
“It’s made things more tense,” said Ferlito. “Will the money come through? We’re trusting in the community that it will.”
At the time of this writing, they’ve raised more than 80 percent of their goal. Donors can contribute as much money in “kickbacks” as they’d like, and people who donate particular amounts will receive certain rewards upon completion of the film. For example, anyone who donates $5 will be thanked on the film’s website and receive access to a high-resolution poster. People who donate more can receive a variety of other perks, including invitations to the premiere, props from the film, or even an official credit.
According to Ferlito, they’re modeling their efforts to raise money after local artist Ty Marshal’s campaign to build a replica of the Cardiff Giant nearly a year ago. That project was a huge success, and Marshal was able to partner with several local businesses for the event.
“We want to be able to profile local businesses and other aspects of the community so everyone can be a part of the film’s distribution and release,” said Ferlito. “For example, we might try and get Syracuse Soap Works to make a special soap for ‘keeping dirty hands clean.’ There’s all sorts of different things we could do. We want the film to be a true community effort.”
If they raise more than their goal, the duo said they’ll be able to afford better locations and more period-era props. They’re also hoping someone will donate a 1970s-era Cadillac convertible to the shoot. More information can be found at weforlee.com.
“We for Lee,” incidentally, was the title of the Syracuse New Times’ Oct. 30, 1985, cover story, which playfully encouraged readers to vote for Alexander as a write-in candidate by selling his virtues: “He acts like a leader. More important, he looks like a leader: Alexander has class: big cigars, fancy dames, bodyguards.”
For now, production seems to be going well. The crew hopes to finish filming in October and to premiere the film in Syracuse early next year. According to Faudree, there’s only one thing giving him trouble: accurately styling the mayor’s mane of hair.
“In the August humidity, my hair tends to curl,” said Faudree. “There’s constant monitoring as to whether it’s got the right swoof.”